In the Beginning…

Few facets of writing are as important as an opening line. While every story needs well-drawn characters and an engaging plot, nothing will deter a reader faster than a lousy first sentence—particularly in short fiction. Thus, your job as a storyteller is to hook the audience at the beginning of your tale and give them a reason to keep reading. There are a number of ways to do this, and since imitation is one of the best ways to learn, here a few examples to consider.

Short and Simple

Some writers begin their narratives with simple, declarative sentences. For example, Tolkien plunges us into the world of the Shire and Middle Earth with the line, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” Likewise, Virginia Woolfe’s opening, “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself,” displays both her protagonist’s commanding personality as well as the author’s own self-assured style.

Here are some other declarative openers that carry plenty of punch:

“The small boys came early to the hanging.” (Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth)

“In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.” (Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It)

“I sent one boy to the gaschamber at Huntsville. One and only one.” (Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men)

“It was love at first sight. The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.” (Joseph Heller’s Catch 22)

Conjuring Up Questions

A short declaration sometimes has the effect of plunging the reader right into the center of the action, such as in Stephen Crane’s The Open Boat: “None of them knew the color of the sky.” Or consider Ernest Hemingway’s The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber: “It was now lunch time and they were all sitting under the double green fly of the dining tent pretending that nothing had happened.” Both of these openings encourage readers to ask questions, and it is these sorts of questions that will coax the audience into joining the author on the narrative journey.

Here’s another opening line that begs all sorts of questions: “When my nose finally stops bleeding and I’ve disposed of the bloody paper towels, Teddy Barnes insists on driving me home in his ancient Honda Civic, a car that refuses to die and that Teddy, cheap as he is, refuses to trade in” (from Richard Russo’s Straight Man). What caused the narrator’s bloody nose, and why is Teddy such a cheapskate? It’s another twenty pages before these questions are answered, but by then, Russo has the audience firmly hooked.

Grand Vistas

Sometimes an author will begin a story with a sweeping comment about the human condition, such as in Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel, Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; unhappy families are each unhappy in their own way.”

Other writers, such as John Irving, will essentially sum up their entire story in an opening line: “I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany” (from Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany). It took Irving several drafts to get this one right, but the statement conjures up a host of questions that are not answered until the book’s final pages.

Who’s Talking?

Consider using your opening passage to establish your speaker’s voice, such as these two narrative gems:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” (Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice)

“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” (J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye)

Listening to these two openers conjures up vivid notions about who is telling the stories—which is precisely what a good narrative should do.

What Not to Do

Here’s a real yawner of an opening line from William Paul Young’s bestselling novel The Shack:

“March unleashed a torrent of rainfall after an abnormally dry winter. A cold front out of Canada then descended and was held in place by a swirling wind that roared down the Gorge from eastern Oregon.”

Are you kidding me? A weather report? Wake me when it’s over. (Believe it or not, this book has sold over three million copies. But then literary quality is not always a prerequisite for commercial success. Look at Dan Brown or Stephenie Meyer.) Now there’s nothing wrong with beginning a story in the throes of a howling snowstorm, but writing something that sounds like a script from the Weather Channel’s teleprompter is probably not the best way to go.

The bottom line is this: If you want people to read your story, it’s important to capture the audience’s attention from the opening line. Put the reader in the middle of the action, or provide them some questions or ideas to ponder. Quality screenwriters know this rule well, and if you’re writing a short story or a novel, the same principle applies.

So, I’ve shown you a few of my favorite opening passages. What are some of yours?

It was the best of lines, it was the worst of lines…


Image by Silverfernzcom via Flickr

Opening lines are a slap in the face with a strange hand. When done right they bring you into this new world you’re about to explore with powerful force, yet leave you needing to know more.

It has to hook your reader quickly and effectively, especially if you’re interested in selling it. In screenplays you only get a few pages, in a novel you may get a chapter. So how do you make a line that gets things running in style? Going off some of the first lines that stuck with me, and ones in the American Book Review’s list of 100 Best First Lines of Novels, here are my thoughts:

Keep it tight – Editing should remove superfluous words from your entire piece, but squeeze things extra tight in your first line. Leave no word there without a specific meaning and intent. For example, consider “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins” – except for one deliberately omitted plot point, you learn something from the sheer simplicity of this sentence and specific words and phrases he used.

Make it strongActive voice and strong verbs only. You’re in control, and your story has something to say. Does “Some thought it was a pretty good time, but others not so much” really pack the same punch?

Declare! – Make a bold statement about your world, your characters, or your ideas. “This is the saddest story I have ever heard” – Holy cow. Take it further and give your readers a command. “Call me Ishmael” gives you more than just the character’s name, throwing in personality, attitude, and several implied questions.

Keep it vague – Wait, what? I thought you just said strong and delcarative!  Yes, and vague. The opening line is a sharp hook, but you have a whole story over which to reel them in. After one sentence you don’t know who Lolita or Ishmael are, or who will be the hero of David Copperfield (“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show”) but you will keep on reading to find out.

There are no absolutes here, but if you look at American Book Review’s list you’ll see that, in general, the lines are still very compelling but get longer and more meandering as you move down the list.

Your opening line is a first, bold, glimpse into this new world you created, and like a curious child peeking through a keyhole you want the tiny sliver they can see to keep them glued.

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Open Up.

The irony here is I have no good opening for this post.  I’ve been thinking about this one for a couple of days and realized a few things.  One is that outside of screenplays, where the first ten pages are of vital importance, the writers I hang out with and I haven’t talked much about the process of crafting our openings.  Close on that was the realization that I don’t really have a full grasp of my process for openings.  So bear with me if this is less how-to and more theory but I do have some thoughts and tips.

  First of all, don’t worry about it, at least at first.  If you come up with a killer first line that’s great.  Even better if it flows seamlessly into an eyeball bursting opening.  That will probably come later though after your first draft is complete.  It’s hard enough to get started on a new piece without the added pressure of a strong opening. 

If I stare at the screen for more than a few seconds I just start with stage direction.  That’s also usually the weakest opening so you’re probably going to change it.  I went through a bunch of my old stuff (just the first few lines) and found this gem–“The black Jag slid smoothly into the parking space marked Caleb Sinclair.”  Blech.  The rest of the paragraph (keep in mind this is the first paragraph) is all Caleb getting out of his car.  It’s a short little story from one of our word exercises and it’s actually pretty decent.  But that opening would be the first to get the cleaver. 

Direction is fine if it serves as a hook.  The first line from Stephen King’s Dark Tower series–“The man in black fled across the desert and the gunslinger followed.”  That’s better.  Still telling us something is happening but it’s not shoe leather.  In one line we have a protagonist, antagonist, and setting.  But more importantly the reader has questions.  Who is the man in black and why is he running?  Who is the gunslinger and why is he chasing?  You have to keep reading to find out.  Nobody gives a damn about why the black Jag is parking and we know who’s in there because I told you. (Seriously, that’s weak.) 

So that’s another goal.  Try to create more questions than you answer.  Think of your opening like a movie trailer.  You have to set the tone and give just enough away that they want the rest.  Give too much away and they think there’s no reason to keep reading, they have it figured out already.  If it helps think of your reader as unwilling to go on and you have to trick him.

And finally a genuine how-to tip.  Going over some old stuff showed me a bunch of weak first draft openings.  Some of the second draft ones could be a little stronger too.  But I did notice one technique crop up rather frequently that always seemed to work well.  A single line of unattributed dialog.  It doesn’t seem to matter what’s being said because you automatically wonder who said it and what the heck they’re talking about.  Pow!  Instant engagement and they’re hooked for at least the next line or two.  Make ’em count. 

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On The Subject Of: Crafting a good opening

As part of our ongoing thematic initiative, for the next two weeks the blog posts will discuss the topic of “crafting a good opening”.  After that we want to pull in another one-word exercise set, so we need some more word ideas from you, our fearless readers.  Post your word suggestions as comments on any of the blog entries this week or next and we’ll choose one of them upon which to spin.

Now, on to the meat of the matter!

By opening, we are not just talking about an opening line, but rather the initial elements that the writer puts forth to draw the reader in (or viewer as is the case with screenplays).  By all accounts, for a full length screenplay, the writer has just 10 pages (which equates to approximately 10 minutes of screen time) to hook the reader and be deemed worthy of further consideration.  Fail that first test and the screenplay hits the rubbish bin.  By necessity, the shorter the piece, the shorter amount of time the writer has to make their mark.

We also chose the word “crafting” deliberately.  For this writer, engaging openings do not fall out of my brain fully formed and ready to take on all challengers.  For short stories and the like, I definitely spend a majority of my rework time in the first two paragraphs, tweaking, poking, prodding, kneading the words into something onto which I hope the reader will grab.

One of my favorite openings is from one of my favorite movies of all time, Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Within a few minutes we are introduced to the main character in his preferred element and given insight into many of the qualities that will serve him well in the story to come: resourcefulness, self-reliance, multi-discipline expertise, quick thinking and, oh yeah, a fear of snakes.  Given that Raiders was a modern take on the action serials of a generation before, it’s no surprise that thrills are abundant immediately, but that we also get a healthy dose of character exposition at the same time shows the craftsman at work.